For the past three weeks I've stayed and traveled in southern Germany (Swabia, between the Black Forest and Bavaria), Switzerland (the central region, around Lucern), and western Austria (not far from the Von Trapp family ancestral home outside Salzburg). For the most part we've been in smaller towns and outside the large cities, and with the exception of Salzburg and one day's visit to Lucern, have avoided the tourist traps (and a good thing too, with the meager buying power of the dollar). In these parts of central Europe (all German speaking), I have been mightily impressed - as ever - by the strength of communal bonds, the presence of local cultures and distinctions, the persistence of tradition and memory, a culture that saves (in every sense), and a strong ethic of work aimed at preserving a high degree of independence.
This impression - admittedly somewhat biased by the particular areas where I've been staying - does not easily fit with the predominant American Left-Right views of Europe, both of which respectively praise or condemn "Europe" for its progressiveness. In the Left wing narrative, Europe is the ultimate "blue state": progressive in its taxation, generous in its health policies, loose in governing marriage and euthanasia, it is praised as a nirvana of easygoing libertarianism. According to the Right wing narrative, Europe is in the throes of cultural suicide, with its churches abandoned, its cradles empty, and incapable of dealing with the threat of internal Islamic domination given trajectories in the birth rate and the feebleness of the "multicultural" response. According to both narratives, Europe is largely the reducible to Amsterdam, Bruxelles and the Hague.
I am far from the centers of influence, but feel myself more in the midst of the reality for many, many peoples of Europe. Here, at the moment in Swabia, outside every town are breathtaking vistas of rolling landscape with miles and miles of forests and farmland, all oriented toward local food production, hunting and forestry. Nearly every household seems involved with the land in some way or another, whether through a small garden and wood stand or a larger farm. In the backyard of many homes one still finds chickens that roam free, fruit trees that are now bearing apples, pears and cherries that will be made into jam, water barrels that catch rainfall with which families water their plants. Nearly every yard has an enormous pile of wood, stacked carefully and in perfect symmetry, already today in use as the temperatures dip into the 50s here. Also, in every backyard one sees a compost heap: one pays for each piece of garbage one throws into the waste can, so every incentive is to avoid refuse weight. Moreover, companies must pay for the production of packaging (which must also be separated from the garbage and separately collected for recycling) and must charge a deposit for all plastic bottles. At most public events you will not even be served with plastic: you must pay a "pfand" (deposit) for dishes or glasses, and return it for return of your deposit afterwards. You must pay for plastic bags at supermarkets, an expense most people avoid by bringing their own canvas bags. The German economy, thus, does not measure its growth by the creation of waste products, and the German countryside is not defiled with endless vistas of discarded plastic.
Towns are towns: houses are generally not permitted outside the town limits due to strict zoning laws that have kept American-style suburbanization at bay. This makes for greater population density - even in the smallest towns - and hence also makes feasible vibrant regional and national public transportation systems. One enters a town defined by visible town limits, and nearly every town has at least a local baker and a local Metzger (butcher), some with even more shops, though nearly always family owned. The houses are close together, with small yards and usually close to the street. For the most part, families live above the businesses they run. Gender roles are generally traditional: husbands produce (bakers bake, butchers butcher, etc.), wives work as cashiers or farm wives, and in the off hours cook and clean. One of the ways that family businesses have been protected from the large chains is strict zoning laws that limit the building of "big box" stores outside town and city limits (yes, it's there, but far less than in America). Another strategy has been the store closing times - a subject of fierce debate for several years. Store closing hours have traditionally favored small business owners who hire few or no employees, and who thus must be home to care for schoolchildren during the afternoons and in the early evening. Most businesses still close for several hours at lunch and at 6:30 in the evening. This allows family businesses to compete with the chains, a fact that is everywhere in evidence, and in contrast to the U.S. Pressure to change the store closing times have come from big businesses and increasing numbers of people working outside the home who have difficulty shopping before 6:30 p.m. Currently a compromise permits businesses to remain open until 8 p.m. on Thursdays, though many do not. In any event, family businesses and small companies still dominate the landscape. What is also striking is that most people who work in these businesses actually know a lot about their trade. Try finding someone at Toys 'R' Us who knows whether the toy you want to buy is liable to have lead paint, and you're likely to get the reply, "Wha??"
In addition to the woodpiles in every yard (much of the wood comes from carefully managed forestland that has long been owned by each family), what strikes one too are the immense numbers of solar panels on many, many of the red tiled roofs. I've learned that there is a very effective subsidy now taking place in Germany which guarantees a high rate of return for electricity produced through solar capture. In effect, houses without solar panels are subsidizing houses that have solar. Of course, the ultimate incentive is reducing the high expenditures for energy in Germany. Roughly half the cost of gas comes in the form of an energy tax (thus, a gallon is roughly six and a half dollars here), and electricity is comparably expensive. There is a far greater degree of effort to conserve, save, and finance sustainable alternatives. In addition to the many thousands of solar panels on house and farmhouse roofs, almost everywhere one can catch sight of a wind turbine turning over and over. Of course, the vehicles are universally smaller, and no one seems to mind that they aren't driving a Hummer. The Europeans I have seen are light years ahead of us in energy conservation, and will weather the storm of depleting oil reserves far better than we. Indeed, the combination of local economies, nearby productive farmland outside every town, viable public transportation and widespread use of alternative energies points to a culture that has never abandoned sustainable communities in the way that America willfully and woefully has done over the past fifty years. You can also get some sense why there is even resentment here toward America's wastefulness: the Europeans pay higher prices for everything in an effort to use less, and whatever "give" there is in the worldwide production of resources is a kind of unintended sacrificial gift that many Europeans are making so that America can continue its energy gluttony. That said, the last laugh will be theirs, I think, when our civilization corrodes with increasingly worthless suburban housing tracts, our incalculable debt, and our inability to finance the American way of life.
Here's something funny: my German father-in-law - no friend of big government, and about as anti-60s one could find - describes this way of life (including the solar panels, etc.) as conservative. And what could be more conservative than the Swabian motto - "schafe, spare, Häusle baue" (work, save, build a house)? Of course, the high finance boys in NYC never got a bonus house in Westhampton based on THAT ethic.
A question without easy answer is how these Europeans - apparently so willing to throw off their traditional allegiance to nationalities and religion - are otherwise so willing to make these sacrifices for the common weal of their communities and fellow citizens? Are the two phenomena connected, or do they persist in spite of, and in ultimate tension with, one another? And why Americans, otherwise so devoted to nation and exceptional in the developed West for their religiosity, have become otherwise so unwilling to make the individual sacrifices that might result in actual forms of liberty - liberty, that is, as self-governance, a form of liberty that would seem otherwise to comport well with self-declared love for patrie and religious faith grounded in stewardship and self-sacrifice? What otherwise ought to go together in each case seems to have been put asunder. Is there a tendency in each way of life that will eventually prevail, or will each continent continue a kind of schizophrenic combination of forms? Or maybe, and most simply, one sees in the South of each of our respective countries a way of life that is passing out of being, but which here in Germany, at least, seems to have maintained a strong and vital foothold.
I am not finally persuaded that THESE Europeans with whom I have visited and lived for the past few weeks are actually as libertarian as an emphasis on Amsterdam would have us believe. Church attendance IS low - that I did note, and I do lament. But, that may not be the most fundamental indicator of the ultimate sources of faith in the lives that are lived here in this way, and I would be unsurprised if Church attendance were to rise in coming years (the current Pope may contribute mightily to that end. There can be no coincidence that he is Bavarian, a southern German). The highest - and usually central point - in each town is its church (usually one steeple, and stunningly beautiful at that), and in the small town where we're staying, I must have counted at least seven large crucifixes that have been erected over decades and even centuries at intersections and on roadsides. On the Holy Day of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, stores were closed and in Bavaria one saw churchgoers dressed in lederhosen and dirndls, the women carrying baskets of flowers to be blessed. In Swabia and Bavaria the customary greeting is "Gruss Gott" - "Greetings with God." In the evening we sit down for "Vespers," still so named for the hour of Benedictine evensong. At the town cemetery one sees neighbors and friends, nearly all times of the day, tending to the graves of loved ones even those generations since departed. Everywhere there are signs of the faith of old, something that must at least still persist in the minds and hearts and hands of these people even as church attendance dwindles. It would take little, it seems, in this land, for a renewal of faith, the faith of old that would comport with a life in many ways barely changed in hundreds of years. It is a way of life, an art of living, that I think will be here recognizable still many hundreds of years yet, long after our reckless American "lifestyle" has passed from existence.